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Durham civil rights leader returns 

Urged calm after MLK killing

It's taken Durham 30 years to invite Howard Fuller, the legendary community organizer, to discuss his work in Durham's Civil Rights Movement.

He's even been too busy to think about it himself. He's been in Milwaukee running public agencies, founding a school reform institute, and working to fix the social problems of today.

But this weekend, Fuller will appear at two events at the invitation of the Durham County Library's North Carolina Collection. He expects to see old friends like Ann Atwater, the poor, black maid whom he trained to become one of the black community's most powerful advocates for school integration.

"So much of my life has been shaped by my life in Durham and all the people I knew and worked with," he said in a phone interview Friday.

When Fuller came to Durham in 1965 as part of the new community group Operation Breakthrough, being black meant enduring a thousand daily humiliations. At their separate waiting rooms at Duke hospital, blacks were the last to be called to see the doctor. They had to stand in line in the store, waiting while clerks rang up the white people first. Slumlords, including some wealthy blacks, left tenants to suffer leaking roofs, rat infestations and broken water pipes.

The tall 24-year-old began by walking the city streets, knocking on doors and getting to know poor people and their problems. Before long he was making things happen. When the Durham Housing Authority tried to evict Joyce Thorpe for organizing mothers to get a day care center, he led tenants in protest. He backed Duke janitors and housekeepers who were fighting for a union.He trained Ann Atwater and others to understand housing codes and welfare regulations and use them to publicly demand their rights. He taught people how to talk and behave in front of the City Council to get what they wanted instead of allowing others to speak for them.

"He changed Durham around for black people," Atwater said. "He sure made Durham a different place to live. He done that."

When Fuller came to Durham, he had already lived in both the white world and the black. He had grown up poor in the Milwaukee projects and attended an all-white college and graduate school on scholarships. Having been helped along by wealthier people, he was determined to repay the debt by helping others.

He earned a master's degree in social work, then chose to do community organizing instead of work in a social work agency. Organizing, he believed, was a way to confront oppression, while social work subtly encouraged the poor to better adjust to it. He also rejected the social work concept of keeping "clients" at a distance.

"The people I was working with, they were people I loved and cared about, and I didn't want to be distant from their pain. I didn't see how I could be an agent for change that way."

A photo from April 5, 1968, is an icon of Fuller's days in Durham. Photographer Billy Barnes captured Fuller, young and rangy, leading hundreds of angry black people on a march to protest the previous day's murder of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Fuller is peering into the sky with his brows knit together.

"I remember exactly what I was thinking," Fuller said. "I had just spotted some white men with rifles on top of the building. I was wondering if that was the Klan."

Behind Fuller is a powerfully built young black man wearing an armband, one of the marshals Fuller brought along on every march to keep order and avoid any excuse for arrests or white violence.

The night before, shortly after news broke of King's death, Fuller had stood up before a crowd of furious students and persuaded them not to march until the next day. At the N.C. Central University student union, people catcalled him "Uncle Tom." But it was dark, the Klan was out, riots were breaking out all over the country, and he was sure someone would get killed.

Later, city leader Watts Hill Jr. told the local paper, "[Fuller] is the single person most responsible for there not being riots in Durham." It was a rare expression of thanks from the white establishment.

After leaving Operation Breakthrough, Fuller migrated to the political far left, delving into Marxism and black cultural nationalism. He founded the short-lived Malcolm X University on Pettigrew Street, where blacks were to learn to run their own companies, develop skills and create their own cultural traditions. When it failed, he returned to Wisconsin.

Now, 30 years after leaving Durham, Fuller is immersed in education reform issues, having served a stint as superintendent of Milwaukee Public Schools. Still as radical as ever, he has appalled many of his liberal allies by calling for private school vouchers for low-income children.

"I see it as an extension of what I was doing in Durham," he said. "What's important is not our institutions. What's important are the people those institutions are supposed to serve."

But he's too busy to think too much about that, either. "I'm trying to figure out what's happening to our people today, trying to figure out how to make changes."

Howard Fuller will speak Saturday, April 22, at 3 p.m. at the First Presbyterian Church in Durham. On Sunday at 3 p.m. he will take part in a panel on the Civil Rights Movement in Durham at the Hayti Heritage Center with Ben Ruffin, Jack Preiss, and Charmaine McKissick-Melton. Info: 560-0171.

More by Rah Bickley


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